I‘ve been following the first two stories on the blog. First, Alabama lawmakers passed a resolution to honor the state’s first black lawmakers during Reconstruction. Plaques will be placed throughout the capitol grounds. This second story on a proposed change to the Maryland state song stirred up a great deal of discussion on the blog. While no changes will be made, it looks like a number of state legislatures are willing to revisit the issue in a future session. Finally, check out this Washington Post article on the battle of New Market Heights and the participation of black Union soldiers. This is one of the battlefields currently on the CWPT’s “Most Endangered Battlefields” list.
I guess this is now what passes for investigative journalism. I am willing to wager that you can find mistakes, oversights, inaccuracies, etc. in any large textbook, especially when it comes to more recent history. Part of the problem is that the publisher may not be able to issue new editions of a particular textbook in response to new information. The bigger problem, however, is our understanding of the history textbook itself. Our tendency is to think of it as somehow capturing an objective or neutral historical narrative. It does not exist. Good instructors teach their students how to read primary and secondary sources with a critical eye.
My bigger issue with the harassment of Columbia University professor, Alan Brinkley, by Fox News’s Griff Jenkins is the way he went about it. Jenkins follows Brinkley for several blocks while criticizing the book’s treatment of the War on Terror. Apparently Brinkley wrote that only one terror suspect detained at Gitmo was ever charged, while Fox claims that the number today is over one hundred. The problem is that Fox did not have data for 2006, when the book was published. On the positive side Jenkins looked quite spiffy and the Fox logo prominently displayed.
If Jenkins was really interested in sitting down with Alan Brinkley than why not request an interview instead of this shameful display? Could it be that as a producer of one of Fox’s shows that Jenkins wasn’t interested in a mature conversation to begin with? Could it be that what he was really interested in is the kind of television “shock and awe” that translates into ratings? I’ve used Brinkley’s Unfinished Nation before in my AP classes and the majority of my students scored 4s and 5s on the test. From what I can tell it did not turn them into screaming liberal fanatics who call for the downfall of this nation. On p. 549 of his book you will find the following in response to the tragedy of 9-11: “Americans responded to the tragedies with acts of courage and generosity, large and small, and with a sense of national unity and commitment that seemed, at least for a time, like the unity and commitment at the start of World War II.” Yep, this is definitely someone you want to stalk in the name of patriotic journalism.
So, in the end what have we learned. Well, if you are a fan of Fox News you probably had your assumptions about academics confirmed and you see Jenkins as some kind of moral crusader. And if you dislike Fox News you are probably feeling sympathetic for Brinkley. What is lost in all of this, however, is a conversation about the book and its content. Congratulations Mr. Jenkins – looks like you had a good day.
The following is an abstract for an essay that I am contributing to an edited collection on tourism in the American South, which is being edited by Karen Cox. Your feedback and questions are strongly encouraged.
In recent years Civil War landscapes (especially battlefields) have come under increasing pressure from various interest groups to broaden their site interpretations beyond a traditional narrative of national reconciliation and the heroism of the Civil War soldier. The evolution of Civil War historiography over the past few decades as well as the changing racial and gender profile of public and private institutions has led to calls for increased attention, among other things, to slavery and race along with the roles that women and civilians played in the war. As the custodian of some of the most prominent and sacred Civil War sites, the National Park Service has been on the front lines in working to manage the tension between and within groups who continue to struggle for control over this nation’s collective memory. Overlooking Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery, surrounding the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which is also known as Arlington House, serves as a repository for the U.S. military dead while the home functions as a shrine to the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Like other Civil War sites, the problem of how to meaningfully interpret slave life has proven to be the most vexing for National Park Service staff in recent years. Specifically, a 2004 report on the subject highlighted just how little information is being shared with the general public as well as a certain amount of resistance from visitors who question whether slave life is even relevant to understanding Robert E. Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding grounds.
The challenge for the NPS in bringing their interpretation of Lee’s home more in line with recent scholarship and in integrating competing narratives long ignored has much in common with other related landscapes. When in 1925 the NPS took over Arlington House, it concentrated on Lee himself by restoring the home to the period just before the Civil War, thus providing the proper context in which to emphasize his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and eventually align himself with the Confederacy. In doing so, the NPS presented the general public with a heroic story of Lee that highlighted his ascendancy to the pantheon of American heroes. As late as 1962, the NPS maintained Arlington House as a “national monument to one of America’s greatest men.” Absent, however, was the presence of a large slave population that worked the grounds as well as a Freedmen’s Village at the end of the war. The challenge of presenting slavery at Arlington House within this “Lost Cause” paradigm is, of course, not unique to this particular site.
What makes the ongoing debate about how to interpret the history of Arlington House worth examining, however, is its location within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. Specifically, the use of the grounds as a final resting place for fallen U.S. soldiers adds another layer of meaning to the landscape and one that the NPS has struggled to effectively integrate. It is here at Arlington House that visitors arrive after having walked by the “Eternal Flame”, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, and row upon row of marble headstones – all of which are symbols of national pride and sacrifice. Such a situation presents NPS interpreters with a set of unique challenges. First, the NPS must bring their site interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically because we cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life at Arlington. Secondly, they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to contemplate these controversial topics: slavery and race versus the solemn landscape of fallen heroes. One speaks to what binds us together as Americans while the other reminds us of what once divided us and continues to prove difficult to understand.
The highlight of my trip to Richmond this past weekend was the tour of Virginia’ State Capitol. Although I’ve walked by it many times, for one reason or another I never had the time to actually walk through it. Michaela and I decided to tag along with one of their tour guides. We had a nice elderly woman guide us. I have to admit that I anticipated the standard tour that barely scratches the surface of the place, but I was pleasantly surprised within a few minutes of the tour.
Our guide did an excellent job of interpreting the Jean-Antoine Houdon statue of George Washington which sits at the very center of the Rotunda, but it was her knowledge of Rudulph Evans’s famous Robert E. Lee statue in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates that really impressed me. The statue is located at the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861. I inquired into the choice of uniform that Evans utilized. In an attempt to impress our guide I noted that Lee would not have been wearing his Confederate uniform at this time since he was only accepting command of Virginia state forces. First, our guide informed me that the likeness was based on a wartime photograph of Matthew Brady, which makes sense after looking at it, but then she asked if I knew what he was, in fact, wearing on that day. With little delay and an apparent knack for putting my own foot in my mouth I said that he would have been wearing his blue U.S. army uniform. How did I know this? I clearly remember the scene in Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals. Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is wearing a uniform. Well, it turns out that Lee wasn’t wearing a uniform at all. He was wearing civilian clothing.
Innocent mistake, no doubt, but it does reflect the influence of popular culture on our understanding of the past. What’s funny is that I’ve criticized this movie over and over and I still went to it as a reliable source on this issue. I should know by now that the only reason to reference it is in the context of Civil War memory/mythology and bad film making. Here is the scene:
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